Making America Great Again

Split along ethnic lines. Washington, May 2017.

Split along ethnic lines. Washington, May 2017.

The sociologist Rudolf Goldscheid once wrote, “The budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies.” His fellow Austrian, the noted economist Joseph Schumpeter, was so fond of repeating this line that many people thought it was his.

In any case, it does provide an excellent back of the envelope way of determining exactly what states, or more properly the people running them, actually care about.The proposals for Mr. Trump’s first budget, released last week with great fanfare, reaffirms the value of this approach.

The proposals for Mr. Trump’s first budget, released last week with great fanfare, reaffirms the value of this approach. Pace Trump’s solicitous utterances in the direction of the working poor, the central proposition of this budget can be summed up by reference Christ’s assessment of the world in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not shall be taken away, even that he hath.”

In our particular case, it is the military that has been tapped for special abundance. Mr. Trump’s budget proposes to add roughly $54 billion to the funding of the military and DHS. The funds to do so are to be taken from sources deemed to be lesser priorities in the national agenda. One such lesser priority the State Department’s foreign aid budget, slated to be cut by 28%.

One such lesser priority is the State Department’s foreign aid budget, slated to be cut by 28%. Also as a proportion that sounds big, the whole of the foreign aid budget amounts to only about 2% of the total discretionary and mandatory budget. But the message is clear and very much in Trump’s characteristic argot: America would rather shoot at you than employ more subtle forms of persuasion.

Some might argue that this was a message already well established in the external posture of this country. They would not be wrong. In such benighted areas as Yemen, Iraq, and the tribal areas of Pakistan, people are liable to be vaporized by a Hellfire missile for having the temerity (or simply the poor timing) to be standing within 15 meters of someone that some guy in a shipping container in Nevada thinks is a terrorist. But, as with so many things, Donald Trump’s decisions in this regard are more a matter of intensification of that which is already there than of innovation or novelty.

Mr. Trump found jingoism and half-baked xenophobia abroad in the land and made them his own. This may have come as a surprise even to those who recognized from the outside that Trump’s prior career had predominantly involved the creation of tacky luxury projects and empty synergies. But such is the nullity at the core of the Donald’s existence that he merely gathers up what is lying around and then loudly insists that it was what he held all along.

It is also telling that the Environmental Protection Agency is set to have its budget reduced by 31%. This is hardly surprising given that Mr. Trump had already seen fit to entrust the leadership of the organization to Scott Pruitt, who clearly thought that the agency itself was a bad idea to begin with. As if putting the EPA in the hands of one of the nation’s most persistent and litigious climate change deniers was not enough, it has also become clear that the parts of the EPA devoted to environmental justice are in line to be pruned away.

This is terrible news for anyone unfortunate enough to own a house build where someone else deposited creosote, or dioxin, or lead, and too poor to move somewhere else. But the hosannas can already be heard from the boardrooms of business that have saddled poor communities across the South and elsewhere with gifts that will keep on giving toxic gifts for generations.

Other parts of Trump’s budget plan seem plainly vindictive. The preview version of the budget released in March called for abolishing funding for both the NEA and NEH. Mr. Trump’s appreciation for art seems to extend no further than garish paintings of himself and the sort of paint by numbers landscapes that are de rigueur for resort hotel rooms. His experience of literature apparently extends no further than the perusal of the guide function on his cable remote.

But in all of this, Donald Trump is hardly alone. The Republican Party had long pushed an agenda that sees literary culture that extends beyond the nostrums of Horatio Alger novels, so one can hardly be surprised that funding for the arts appears to the party membership generally as a frippery.

Most worryingly, Mr. Trump’s budget proposal wrecks havoc on what’s left of the social safety net in the country. There are cuts to food stamps, disability programs, and Medicaid. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, asserted that benefits wouldn’t be taken away from those who need them. But perhaps the Donald’s supporters will recognize in the near future that when rich people assert that poor people don’t need benefits they in practice mean poor white people as well.

The attitude of Trump and his clique towards the people of the United States is very much reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s theory of the taker class, the 47% of Americans who perniciously refuse to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Mr. Trump’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made this clear, if in a marginally less pointed way, when he commented that, “We have plenty of money in this country to take care of the people who need help. We don’t have enough money to take care of people, everybody who doesn’t need help.”

Romney’s comments cost him with the electorate, but this had as much to do with the stentorian tones in which it was delivered. Donald Trump, for reasons that merit book-length explanation on their own, has the knack of talking to the common man. By the time the common man figures out which end of the stick he’s getting, Mr. Trump and his people will have moved on to decimating something else (by all current indications the Earth’s climate).

Trump’s budget is presented in terms of a sort of hard-nosed fiscal responsibility. Yet it is predicated on the fantasy that austerity can be expansionary when there is not a shred of evidence that that is actually the case.

As Lawrence Summers noted in a recent article, Mr. Trump’s budget also commits a fairly basic accounting error by double-counting the benefits of tax cuts as part of an economic baseline and as the result of growth predicated thereupon.

The idea that there will be 3% in any of the major industrialized economies in the foreseeable future is pollyanna-ish, not merely optimistic. It is yet another moment in his pattern of proof by simple assertion. And perhaps this is the point to recall that while Abraham Lincoln was correct that one can’t fool all of the people all of the time, one can fool enough people enough of the time to do some real lasting harm.

Photograph courtesy of Juan. Published under a Creative Commons license.